Interview: Historian & Medieval Bodies Author Jack Hartnell
March 30, 2018

Isn’t this book cover the BEST thing ever?! I was intrigued as soon as I saw it and I immediately reached out to the author, Jack Hartnell, for an interview.

1. Please tell us a little bit about your new book, Medieval Bodies.

In my work as a medieval historian I have to think a lot about bodies in all sorts of forms: born, bathed, dressed, loved, bruised, buried, even resurrected. I see them as the perfect path to understanding the very essence of everyday life in the past. Bodies are, after all, one of the few things we have in common with people in the Middle Ages. But they were also things understood totally differently in the medieval world. The book explores how medieval people from Byzantium and Baghdad to Nuremberg and Norwich might have experienced their physical selves, bringing together medicine, art, poetry, music, politics, cultural and social history and philosophy to guide the reader through life, death, and art in the Middle Ages.


2. Your book, Medieval Bodies, has the subtitle of “Life, Death and Art in the Middle Ages.” That’s quite a few things to cover for one book! How do they all tie together?

In the book I take my lead from medieval thinkers themselves. When a medical author in the Middle Ages sat down to write a record of their accumulated cures, they would often choose the body’s own skeleton to act as their literary form, presenting treatments ‘a captie ad calcem’—‘from head to toe’—working their way from baldness and the brain down to twisted ankles and splinters in the toe. The book unravels in just the same way, piece by bodily piece: head, senses, skin, bones, heart, blood, hands, stomach, genitals, and, finally, feet. By fleshing out each of these anatomised elements in turn we can build up a picture of medieval bodies as more than just the sum of their parts, encompassing contemporary attitudes to life and death, pain and beauty. This is the body in its very broadest sense, a jumping-off point for exploring all kinds of aspects of medieval life. And once loosed from the confines of a distant ‘Dark’ Age, we can begin to see that the lives of these past bodies were not so very far from our own.


3. What areas of the world are covered in your book? What differences do you see in cultural views of life and death in western Europe vs. other areas of the world during the same period?

A big problem with thinking about medieval history is that the ‘Middle Ages’ captures in two short words an enormous period, a whole multiplicity of peoples, cultures, religions, and geographies. It has contested beginnings and contested endings: historical change is, after all, a human thing, and does not sweep uniformly across regions in an instant. Nonetheless, a shared classical heritage undeniably binds together the medieval history of the regions on all sides of the Mediterranean, separating them somewhat from the busy parallel stories of the Far East, India, China, Sub-Saharan Africa, or the Pre-Columbian Americas.

This is the world I focus on in the book, comparing and contrasting the different views of life, death, and the body held across Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa.


4. What’s something surprising you discovered while researching this book?

My biggest surprise was probably just how much modern medical technology can help our understanding of the medieval past. In recent decades medieval bodies and medieval artworks have been investigated using everything from x-rays and CT-scanners to DNA analysis and genomic sequencing, all of which can tell us a huge amount about a particular individual and the way they might have lived their lives. This is the future of medieval bodies. Like centuries-old patients, we examine them with care, search out their case histories, and send their samples to the lab for analysis. The diagnosis: they are awake and chattering like never before.


Medieval Bodies: Life, Death and Art in the Middle Ages is available now in hardcover and Kindle in the UK.

Jillianne Hamilton is a history enthusiast and the author of The Spirited Mrs. Pringle (historical fiction), The Hobby Shop on Barnaby Street (historical romance), and The Lazy Historian’s Guide to the Wives of Henry VIII (non-fiction). Jill launched The Lazy Historian in 2015. She lives in Charlottetown on Canada’s beautiful east coast. Learn more.

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Hi, I'm Jillianne.

I'm a historical fiction writer, a lover of history, and a hoarder of books. I'm the author of The Spirited Mrs. Pringle, The Hobby Shop on Barnaby Street, and The Lazy Historian's Guide to the Wives of Henry VIII.

The Lazy Historian is a history blog featuring stories from the past with sass. With a focus on Western European and women's history, I delve into anything fascinating. Learn more.